It was six months from the day: March 11. What better time to get together with colleagues and, may we even say, loved ones—well, at least fellow lovers of that most communal of arts: the theatre. The overt references to Sept. 11 in Garland Awards acceptance speeches were minimal and thankfully tasteful, but the proceedings were suffused with an altogether unique post-9/11 awards-show atmosphere: grateful humility. David Rutter in the final speech of the evening, accepting for the ensemble of Our Country's Good, may have said it best: "I wanted to say something really funny and cynical, but I just can't. I'm just happy to be here."
Past awards shows have been an excuse for chest thumping in the spirit of L.A. theatre promotion or an opportunity to tease one another with the healthy sarcasm that anyone who toils in Southland theatre has found the need to cultivate. This time around, the Garlands were gentler and more secure in the knowledge that for better or worse the L.A. theatre community is truly a family—sometimes critical, but ultimately comforting. The best indicator of this exceptional humility is that everyone kept it short. Shameless self-promotion was at an all-time low, and the awards show wrapped up in a miraculous, unprecedented two hours.
It probably had something to do with the fact that the 9/11 documentary aired on CBS the evening before, and whether you watched it or not, the events were again in the public's mind. References to loved ones, partners, and family seemed more prevalent in the brief speeches, and while the occasional flash of humor was welcomed, self-deprecation or mean-spiritedness was not to be found. Even when comedienne Claire Berger's tribute to Paula Holt ran a bit long with no less than two humorous "Top 10" lists, the audience indulged it, and any squirming turned to genuine appreciation of things past and now sadly gone as Holt took the podium, expressing her feelings of loss over the soon-to-be-destroyed Tiffany Theaters with honest emotion.
The evening kicked off in the spirit of humility and goodwill as L.A. critics surprisingly took to the stage in a hilarious medley penned and, of course, featuring our musical Editor in Chief Rob Kendt (and choreographed by David Fuller). Watching Entertainment Today's Travis Michael Holder and Back Stage West's Wenzel Jones croon about the "hundred million theatres" they frequent every year, one got the overwhelming impression that, despite the occasional poison pen, these journalists love their scene—they really love it. Andrew Ableson, reprising his Orson's Shadow turn as Ken Tynan, narrated the mini-musical and summed up its feelings best: "If we critics sometimes seem like bloodsuckers, consider, if you will, the good reviews that somehow escape us when we let our guards down; consider the selfless devotion of a man or woman who would make a career of going to see several plays a week and criticizing them in every scintilla."
Genuine affection occasionally turned to sad reminiscence. The poignant atmosphere peaked in a lovely tribute to the now-defunct Shubert Theatre, featuring a host of performers who have graced that legendary stage with their talents, and choreographed by Linda Dangcil. Most impressive and moving was the chorus line of Chorus Line original cast members—Lisa Bowman, Dangcil, Ron Dennis, Barbara Luna, Sammy Tampoya, and Sammy Williams—recalling "What I Did for Love." It was indeed a night for remembering things past, perhaps more than heralding the future.
Other telling aspects of this annual—but perhaps for the first time completely authentic—love fest included spreading the affection beyond the honorees. After presenters and revered local designers Chris Acebo and Candice Cain mentioned with faux sadness that neither had actually won a Garland as of yet, almost every subsequent honoree to whom they presented an award took a respite from their acceptances to sing the praises of these two obviously appreciated design gurus.
The Old Hollywood feel of the movie-house-turned-live-stage Alex Theatre in Glendale provided the appropriately opulent but oddly cozy atmosphere for the evening. And if there was a negative aspect to the post-attacks rededication to family it was this: The majority of performers seemed to rush home to those families as soon as they received their awards. Despite that there was no big party waiting outside—the food and drinks had been served in the honorees-only pre-show event—the audience emptied out of the place more than ever this year. How ironic that critics have the ability to sit through sometimes three or more indulgent hours of some theatrical opus or another in dark, dank 99-seat houses, but L.A. performers can't even seem to make it through a two-hour event celebrating themselves.
But lest I be accused of acting as the Grinch that stole the Garlands joy, let's turn to some of the amusing, candid moments that made this Back Stage West awards show the warmest in memory:
Shortest speech: Sound designer—and multiple past Garland winner—John Zalewski, whose succinct "thank you" and exit received a hale of applause.
Worst presenter banter: Costume designer Candice Cain's heroic delivery of the scripted groaner regarding Shon LeBlanc's numerous nominated shows in 2001: "If that doesn't show versatility, I'll make an edible hat and eat it."
Proof that shameless self-promotion isn't completely dead: Gregory Jbara's repeated plug of the recently opened First Lady Suite at the 2nd Stage.
Best sight gag: Diminutive presenter Leslie Jordan next to statuesque co-presenter Lesley Fera. "Do not adjust your sets. You're not seeing double. She's Lesley with an e-y, " said the deadpan Jordan.
Best ongoing pratfall: The cast of The Servant of Two Masters, who each tripped coming up the dark stairs to accept their ensemble award after cast member Edmund L. Shaff's genuine(?) misstep.
Strangest metaphor: Tamar Fortgang's comparison of theatre company Zoo District to crown-wearing group mascot, Murray the Pig, while accepting for her work in The Slow and Painful Death of Sam Shepard. But it actually made sense if you really listened.
Best opening-number lyrics: Rob Kendt and Luis Reyes as—what else?—critics, singing to the tune of Big River's "Worlds Apart": "I cried the same tears in horror/that you cried with joy/But we're worlds apart—worlds apart/Just like the axe/Just like the tree/Two critics together/Can never agree."
Scariest claim: Costume designer Shon LeBlanc's calculation that he actually costumed an astounding 31 shows last year.
Reminder that we're still in a film town: Karen Kondazian's admission, in accepting for her work in The Night of the Iguana, that the live iguana onstage actually had more movie credits than most of the actors.
"Don't go there" award: Claire Berger's allusion to the time she and Paula Holt were trapped in an amorous monkey forest.
Best juxtaposition of quotes: Paula Holt in eulogizing the Tiffany Theaters referenced Joni Mitchell ("They've paved paradise and put up a parking lot") and W.B. Yeats ("I have spread my dreams under your feet. Tread softly, because you tread on my dreams").
Best fashion statement: Beauty and the Beast's Jeremy Lelliott's "Free Winona" T-shirt, onstage for the Shubert tribute.
The Twain meat: Bill O'Brien quoting Mark Twain, whose character, Huckleberry Finn, he shared with deaf actor Tyrone Giordano in Big River: "In order to get the full value of a joy, you have to have someone to divide it with."
Best moment of irony: "We've been told that we need to project a little more up here, because unbeknownst to you people on the main floor, the balcony is packed."—Presenter Nora Dunn upon looking out on the rows and rows of empty seats. (The balcony was of course closed.)
Second best moment of irony: Ben Simonetti, accepting for Go True West, also looking out at the half-empty theatre: "To all those award winners who have already left, I hope your meal is good."
Capturing the loving zeitgeist: Alyson Reed, accepting for Do I Hear a Waltz?, "So many times we wonder who's seeing our performances—but we have to remember that for those two hours we maybe have a chance just to make someone feel better. I think that's something all of us can be very proud of."